tag: Britain

Jan 2013

The best we can do?

I didn’t hear the statement first hand, but I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 a Tory MP (Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire) lamented the pitiful remuneration that he and his colleagues receive for the sterling work they’re doing to further impoverish Britain. By choosing a life of public service, he claims that MPs risk “foregoing Christmas presents for their children”. The basic salary for a member of the UK parliament is £65,738 (almost €80k). They also – as we now know in some detail – have a pretty generous expense account should that £65k prove insufficient. And their pension package is second-to-none.

Andrew Bridgen

Andrew “the poor are too rich
and the rich too poor” Bridgen MP

Now, let’s analyse that statement. The average salary in the UK is a little under £30k (approx €35k). Most of the people drawing that salary don’t have an expense account, generous or otherwise. And almost none of them have a pension plan that comes anywhere close to that of an MP. This leads us to one of three conclusions…

  1. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t get Christmas presents for their children (thank god for Santa, eh Mr. Bridgen?)
  2. The children of MPs either require or deserve more expensive gifts than the children of the plebs.
  3. Andrew Bridgen MP, and those other MPs for whom he is speaking, are terrible at managing their money and/or have more important things to spend 65 grand on than their children.

Alternatively, I suppose he could just be lying.

Of course, when taken out of context, Bridgen’s statement seems to paint him as an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser of the first order. However, when placed into the proper context things look somewhat different. Because you see, his statement came the same week as his party carried out a singularly vicious attack on the living standards of the poorest Britons. In that context Bridgen’s statement no longer paints him as an out-of-touch tosser. In that context, his statement paints him as an evil bastard.

Oh, and don’t for a moment think he’s alone in this. Though other MPs might have the intelligence (and/or instinct for self-preservation) to refrain from making such offensive and crass statements in the national media; in private a large majority of them seem to concur with Bridgen. The majority of sitting MPs, when guaranteed anonymity, suggest that they deserve a pay-rise of more than 30%. Once again, let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the majority of them voting for a cut (in real terms) of the income of those at the very bottom of society.

Those poor MPs

At the same time as Bridgen is whining about the terrible sacrifice he’s making by earning more than twice the national average (plus expenses), a magazine has published a list of British MPs earnings from the Gulf region. Gordon Brown pocketed a tidy quarter million dollars from his four speeches in the region in 2012. David Miliband fared less well with his paltry $230k. And the list goes on. These are sitting MPs remember… this is what they’re picking up despite the pesky distractions of public service.

There are people – and I’m sure Andrew Bridgen MP is one of them – who point to this as evidence that MPs are underpaid (“look how much we could be making…!”). But the notion that David Miliband would be getting paid $100k to give a speech in the Emirates if he wasn’t a prominent British MP is beyond absurd. Also, my mischievous side would like to point out to Bridgen that if he was any good at being an MP he’d probably be getting paid lots to give speeches in Kuwait along with the rest of them. Then his kids could have that diamond-encrusted Playstation they so clearly deserve. Turns out though, Bridgen just isn’t good enough to merit such “performance-related bonuses”. Which I guess means that as well as being an evil bastard and an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser, he also happens to be bloody terrible at his job.

But of course that’s just the mischief in me. In reality I don’t think any MP should be earning a small fortune by making themselves available to wealthy vested-interests. Not only is £65k and a generous expense-account more than enough to live on; it’s also more than enough to ensure your kids have a good Christmas. Damn near everyone else manages on less.

There are generally two responses to this line of criticism (a line of criticism, let us not forget, that these people invite upon themselves when they start whinging on the radio about how difficult their life is). The first is that we need to pay the best salaries to ensure we get the best people. The second is that the whole subject is something of a distraction given how small the total expenditure on MP salaries is compared with the national budget. Let us conclusively examine and address both responses…

And by the way, let’s not kid ourselves that this is a British thing. It’s just as relevant here in Ireland (where, astonishingly, TDs get paid more than their British counterparts yet are just as eager to impose massive cuts on the income of the poor – all the while complaining about how “difficult” the decision to further impoverish the already impoverished is for them. For them.)

But we need The Best

This argument is also frequently used to defend the massive bonuses of bankers. And it’s really quite simple. The job of an MP/TD is extremely important. Therefore we need to make sure that the best people for the job will be attracted to it. We do this by incentivising them with large salaries. Otherwise these “best of the best” would find high paying jobs in the private sector and the nation would be in a far worse state.

The stream of colourful expletives that rises unbidden to my lips whenever I hear this argument would be enough to make even the most worldly of you blush, dear reader. It’s an argument that not only contains a basic (and blatant) fallacy, but is also at its core utterly misanthropic.

Firstly let’s deal with the misanthropy. Anyone who believes that “the best people” are currently sitting in the House of Commons in London, or The Dáil here in Dublin, must utterly loathe humanity. Because their opinion of the rest of us must be so incredibly low. Seriously, Andrew Bridgen MP… one of the best and brightest in Britain? I’d wager that were he enclosed with a handful of slightly slow chimpanzees, he’d struggle to emerge as one of the best and brightest in that room.

Yes, I know the idea is not to attract “the best people” but rather “the best people for the job”. But even that’s utter nonsense. Given the ungodly mess that these people are consistently making of running their countries, the argument becomes “the absolute best that humanity can achieve is a society that lurches from one crisis of mismanagement to the next”. I know there are plenty of people out there who possess such a relentlessly negative view of the human race that such a statement makes sense to them. I just think they’re wrong. I think we could do better if we had better people making the decisions. No, I’m not suggesting utopia is within our grasp – but I’m pretty sure we could manage a society where substantially less people were killed in wars, driven into poverty and oppressed by the powerful. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than the unholy mess created by the Andrew Bridgens (or Eamon Gilmores) of this world.

At the moment Ireland’s unemployment rate is hovering around the 15% mark (it’s probably a fair bit higher than that, what with all the Job-bridge internships and Back-to-Work training schemes artificially suppressing the numbers). Our parliament – The Dáil – consists of 166 members, known as TDs. Now, having collected my winnings from my Andrew Bridgens / slow chimpanzees wager, let me place it all on another bet… given moderate resources, I wager I could find from within that 15% of the population who are currently unemployed, 166 people who would do a much better job at being a TD than the current crop. On top of that, I could find 166 of them who would be willing to do that job for half the salary.

That’s not hyperbole. No, I don’t personally know 166 unemployed people who would meet those criteria but I know enough people to understand that the vast majority of those who currently sit in The Dáil are not even “above average” at what they’re doing, let alone “the best”. And I know enough to know that the 400,000+ unemployed people in this country includes plenty of genuinely excellent ones.

Because – and this is where the fallacy in the statement “we need to attract the best by offering huge salaries” is revealed – the people who succeed in politics are not the best people to run a country. No, they are just the most manipulative, self-serving, hyper-ambitious, back-stabbing bastards willing to negotiate the appalling party political system. The best people to run a country would have a combination of skills and characteristics that included a genuine acceptance of the occasional need for self-sacrifice in pursuit of the common good, a broad compassion for their fellow men and women, excellent management and administration skills, an analytical mind capable of grasping and weighing up the potential consequences of any decision, the ability to communicate their ideas to a wide audience, a willingness to consider seriously alternative viewpoints and change their position where the evidence demands, and finally a thorough understanding of the history of political philosophy (allowing them to understand the difference between fashionable ideology and the long-term needs of a society). Yes, that’s a pretty lofty job specification, but it’s a pretty lofty job. And yes, those people do exist. Just not within the modern political system.

Fat Cats

It wasn’t perfect, but despite initial misgivings, everyone eventually agreed that firing the politicians and
putting a “different bunch of fat cats” in charge had resulted in the country being better run

What’s remarkable is that the modern party political system actively excludes people with many of those qualities. So don’t tell me that we have the best people for the job sitting in our houses of parliament. Hell, pick 166 random people from the register of unemployed and you’d probably get a marginal improvement. Add a half-decent selection process and you’d do even better. And no, I’m not arguing for a particular electoral system / selection process here – just railing against the nonsense of the “we need the best” argument when used to defend a system that excludes them.

If huge salaries attracted “the best people for the job” we would not have had a massive collapse in the banking sector. OK? So let’s put that ridiculous argument to bed once and for all.

It’s just a distraction

This is the other argument. It emerged most recently in the political expenses scandals. Given the billions lost in the financial crisis (by the best people for the job) and the debt crisis it has revealed, getting in a tizz about a few million euro in political salaries and expenses is silly, and it distracts us from more important issues.

Here’s the thing though. I happen to think that the type of people we have running our affairs is extremely relevant when it comes to these kinds of crises and the strategies we might use to solve them. If we have people motivated by personal greed, rampant ambition and a hunger for power… people who are willing to fiddle their expenses and cheat the public out of money they have no right to… people more interested in scoring petty party political points and making the other guy look “wrong” than they are in solving problems and making themselves “right”… people who go on the radio and insist that earning more than twice the national average is not enough to provide for their children, while simultaneously trying to reduce that national average… if we have those people in power then we’re basically screwed. Permanently.

It’s not a distraction to point that out. It’s not a distraction to point out that we need better people, and more than that, we need people who are willing to set aside personal greed for the greater good. If you don’t think there are 166 people in Ireland capable of that, then fair enough. But I think you’re wrong. I think we can do better. Because I think we are better.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Apr 2012

Lying politicians (and media complicity)

Yesterday over in the UK, David Cameron gave a speech which contained two blatant lies. Firstly he claimed of the company Rolls Royce that “Half the members of its Board started as apprentices.” In fact, to quote the excellent Channel 4 FactCheck blog

Only one out of the fourteen members of the Rolls-Royce board of directors did an apprenticeship with the company, and that was a sponsored degree rather than a vocational course for a school-leaver.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister)

A lying liar

Cameron also claimed (and prefaced the claim with the immortal words, “I am not making this up”) that the previous Labour government had introduced a GCSE-equivalent course “in Personal Effectiveness which actually involved learning how to fill out a benefit form”. In fairness to Cameron he’s right when he said that he wasn’t making that one up. As the FactCheck blog reveals, he was actually just parroting something that the Daily Mail had made up. Which is par for the course for British politicians of almost every stripe.

Now, what irks me most is not those specific lies. It’s the fact that we have come to accept lies and half-truths from our politicians as though they were the most natural thing in the world. There will be no massive scandal about Cameron’s false claim that the Rolls Royce boardroom is half-filled with erstwhile apprentices who worked their way up from the machine room. Indeed, with the exception of a tiny handful of people who read the Channel 4 FactCheck blog, most people will never know the claim is false.

And tomorrow, or next week, he’ll make a speech with yet more self-serving lies and once again they will be accepted as fact.

Because despite the excellent FactCheck blog, the reality is that the media as a whole does a god-awful job of holding our politicians to account. In a sane world, Cameron’s next speech or press conference would be followed by a dozen questions from the floor asking him why he lied in his previous speech. Why he was content to trot out the vile falsehoods of the Daily Mail as though they were fact. Why, in fact, he was comfortable treating the citizens of his country with such naked contempt.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that journalists should be able to identify the lies as they are told. Fact checking takes time. But if they were doing their jobs in an even half-competent manner, they’d hold him to account for the things he says on the next occasion they got to question him. But they don’t. Instead they are actively complicit in those lies… reporting them without ever investigating them.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2012

Corporate donors to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Blessed are the rich, for they shall inherit the earth

Matthew 5:5 | New Testament (Church of England edition, 2012)

Last night in London, police and bailiffs with the blessing of the Church of England and under orders from The City of London Corporation, evicted the Occupy protesters from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The protest camp which has been a fixture in central London for over four months sought to voice opposition to corporate greed. It was perhaps appropriate, therefore, that St. Paul’s Cathedral was the location they chose to voice that opposition. For surely there can be no greater example of the power of corporate greed to twist and pervert the society in which it manifests.

Roughly two thousand years ago, if we accept the version of history upon which the Christian Churches are based, Jesus Christ cast the money lenders and profiteers from the sacred grounds of the temple. One does not need to believe that to be historical fact to appreciate the symbolism of the story, and by extension to understand the stated values of Christianity. Personally I do not consider the bible to be a work of historical fact. However, and I really cannot stress this enough, I am not being critical when I make that judgement. Indeed, there’s a sense – and it’s a very real sense – in which I consider sacred mythopoetry, such as that found in the bible, to be more important than historical fact. It’s absolutely vital of course, to be aware of the differences between the two, but there’s no sense in which historical fact disproves or invalidates myth. They are two separate categories of knowledge and fulfil two very different functions.

Take, for example, the Christian story of The Last Supper. It is one of the most important stories in our culture (in the words of Gregory Bateson, “it’s all made of stories, you know”) and I think it is illuminating; genuinely illuminating; that even as western civilisation has lost touch with its mythology, so we have seen the destructive rise of fast food and McDonald’s culture. I’m not saying one caused the other; I’m saying that within our ecology of mind, a particular pattern is manifesting in a number of different ways. Bateson discussed the Last Supper in one of his lectures…

“Host / guest” relationships are more or less sacred all over the world, as far as I know. And are of course one of the reasons why, to go back to where we started, the bread and the wine happen to be sacred objects.

Don’t […] get it upside down. The bread and the wine are not sacred because they represent Christ’s body and blood. The bread and the wine are primarily sacred, because they are the staff of life; the staff of hospitality… of guests… of hosts… of health and all the rest of it. And so, secondarily, we equate them with Christ.

The sacredness is real. Whatever the mythology. The mythology is the poetical way of asserting the sacredness. And a very good poetical way of asserting it. But bread is sacred whether or not you accept the Christian myth. And so is wine. Unless you’re determined to eat plastic.

Gregory Bateson | Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (approx 50 minutes in)

Anyway, my point is that there’s a whole baby/bathwater thing going on when we embrace secularism without finding an adequate replacement for those positive elements provided by our cultural mythopoetry. There’s no inherent reason for us to stop asserting the primary sacredness of bread and wine when we cease to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Yet nonetheless, that’s precisely what we have done. And I don’t necessarily think the gains we’ve made are adequate compensation for our losses.

Worst of all though, is when the very people who have appointed themselves as guardians of our mythology are themselves its ultimate betrayers. Christ’s casting out of the money-lenders and profiteers is right up there with The Last Supper when it comes to important stories. It would be more than a little trite to suggest that Jesus was the original Occupy protester, but there are certainly parallels to be drawn. And although I have been critical of certain aspects of the Occupy Movement on this blog in the past, it’s always been constructive criticism. I very much share the majority of their goals and any critical comments from me are merely suggestions as to how I feel the movement might be more effective. Precisely because I want Occupy to be more effective.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Matthew 21:12-13 | King James Version

Matthew leaves us under no illusions as to whose side Jesus would have taken in last night’s eviction. And any member of Church of England clergy who believes that Christ would have been wearing a police uniform… or even the robes of the church… is guilty of staggering self delusion. Especially when you take a look at the list of those who offer “financial support” to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Blessed are the rich (just pretend we didn’t say that, OK?)

A few weeks ago I visited the St. Paul’s Cathedral website and clicked on a page called “Our Supporters“. The page contained a lengthy list of corporate (and other) donors… those who had made substantial (in excess of UKP £50,000) financial contributions to the Cathedral. Some time over the past few weeks someone at St. Paul’s realised that this was bad Public Relations, given that they were soon to send the police to remove people from the Cathedral steps… people who were protesting against those very corporations. And so they removed the list of donors, replacing it with a bland statement of thanks to staff members past and present.

Talk about spineless! Here we have an organisation that claims to follow the path of a man who explicitly opposed the very practices they now indulge in (inviting the money-lenders into the temple). More than that, they clearly know it, which is why they have quietly removed their donor list. Unfortunately for them they were not entirely thorough. Although they have completely purged the list from their website, it appeared on the last page of their most recent newsletter (available as a PDF file). And just in case they decide to purge that too, I have reproduced the list in full here. I have highlighted a few names that I think are particularly interesting, though the entire list makes for illuminating reading…

The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral would like to thank all those who contributed to our £40 million campaign to conserve and restore St Paul’s Cathedral in celebration of the Cathedral’s 300th anniversary. We would specifically like to thank donors of £50,000 and over:

Robin Fleming and Family
Sir Paul and Lady Getty
The Garfield Weston Foundation
The City Bridge Trust
The St Paul’s Cathedral Trust in America
The Lennox Hannay Charitable Foundation
The Cadogan Charity
Lloyds TSB Group plc
An Independent Trust Associated with Barclays
City of London Corporation
City of London Endowment Trust
The Schroder Foundation
Goldman Sachs International
Mark Pigott OBE
The Wolfson Foundation
The Garfield Weston Trust for St Paul’s Cathedral
The Worshipful Company of Mercers
The Sunley Foundation
UBS Investment Bank
Mr Richard & Miss Clementine Hambro
McKinsey & Company
Roger Gabb
The Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust
CHK Charities Ltd
David Mayhew CBE
N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd
Sir Brian Williamson CBE
29th May 1961 Charitable Trust
Dr Yury Beylin
Brunswick Group
Mr and Mrs William R Miller CBE
Lennox and Wyfold Foundation
Hugh & Catherine Stevenson
Skandinaviska Enskilda Bank
Roger Carlsson
The Clothworkers’ Foundation
The Headley Trust
Nicholas Oppenheimer
Prudential Plc
Simon & Virginia Robertson
The Capital Group
Lexicon Partners
Slaughter & May
Barry Bateman
Charterhouse Capital Partners LLP
Electra Partners LLP
Land Securities
Standard Chartered Plc
JP Morgan Cazenove
J.P. Morgan
Cantor Fitzgerald L.P
BGC Partners
Dulverton Trust
CMS Cameron McKenna LLP
The Freemasons’ Grand Charity
David Barnett
Len Blavatnik
Canary Wharf Group Plc
Lord Cockfield Memorial Trust
The Drapers’ Company
Man Group Plc Charitable Trust
London Stock Exchange
The Worshipful Company of Grocers
Stewart Newton
Sir David Walker
Sir Roger & Lady Gibbs
Sir Robert & Lady Finch
Peter and Stephanie Chapman
Fidelity UK Foundation
English Heritage
Wyfold Foundation
American Express
The Coutts Charitable Trust
The British Land Company Plc
HSBC Holdings Plc
Morden College
Aldgate & All Hallows Barking Exhibition Foundation
Jon B Lovelace
Richard & Ellen Sandor Family Foundation
The Scholl Foundation

And here’s the relevant page of the newsletter:

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

An Ecology of Mind (film) – UK Tour

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The name “Gregory Bateson” will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It will also be familiar to a small number of academics who have studied his work in such disparate fields as anthropology, psychotherapy, communications theory, systems dynamics, linguistics, ecological science and biology.

Now, those who know Bateson’s work will have spotted the deliberate error in the above paragraph. It is of course the central thesis of Batesonian philosophy that these are not “disparate fields” at all. Our separation of these disciplines is entirely arbitrary and ultimately quite problematic. Though as he himself acknowledged, we do have to think about things separately simply because “it’s too difficult to think of everything at once”.

It’s one of the great tragedies of our times that Bateson’s work is so unfamiliar to so many people, and that his name is barely recognised even by the generally well-educated. Those who do know Bateson’s work (not all of them of course, but a significant majority of those I’ve met or read) count him among the most important thinkers of the past few hundred years. And they lament his relative lack of influence on a culture that could sorely use some wisdom and guidance. Reading his seminal collection of papers, Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a truly revelatory experience and anyone who does so with an open mind is likely to be profoundly changed by it. He sees – clearer than most – the fundamental flaws in how humanity interacts with the world of which it is a part. He doesn’t provide a set of solutions to our problems, for he denies our problems are of the kind that can be addressed using “a set of solutions”. Rather, he identifies our “way of thinking about the world” to be the central issue. Our entire epistemology is deeply flawed and it is leading us ever closer to disaster.

A simple example of this flawed epistemology; this failure to see the vital interconnections in the world around us; can be seen by examining the current European financial crisis. On the one hand, the IMF and EU are predicting that Ireland and Greece will overcome their problems so long as they act in a particular way and follow certain instructions. They predict certain rates of economic growth which, although modest, will be enough to get us out of trouble within a certain number of years so long as we privatise state assets and implement strict budgetary controls. On the other hand, both institutions have issued warnings (IMF, EU) about impending oil / resource depletion that are, if taken at face value, absolutely guaranteed to torpedo those growth projections. In the context of charitable donations, the advice of Jesus to “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3) is certainly a worthy one. Unfortunately when it comes to matters of public policy, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, enough about that. My UK readers will – I hope – be interested to discover that the recent film about Bateson’s life and work (entitled, appropriately enough, “An Ecology of Mind“) is to be screened at several locations in the month of February. I’ve not yet seen the film, dear reader, but I nonetheless recommend you attend your nearest screening. Any film about Bateson’s work is surely a must-see. It’ll certainly be a more enriching experience than Transformers 7: The Car’s A Robot!

Currently the dates announced are:

  • Feb 13th, 2012Milton Keynes (Berrill Lecture Theatre, 7pm)
    Contact: Magnus Ramage at m.ramage @ open.ac.uk or telephone 01908 659 779
  • Feb 14th, 2012Hull (Hull University)
    Contact: Gerald Midgley at G.R.Midgley @ hull.ac.uk
  • Feb 15th, 2012Manchester (Chinese Art Centre, 6pm)
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 16th, 2012Manchester (MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2pm)
    Address: Room 104 Geoffrey Manton Building, All Saints Campus, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 17th, 2012Glasgow (The Old Hairdressers, 7pm)
    Invited panel speakers: Nora Bateson, filmmaker; Carol Craig, author of The Tears that Built the Clyde; Torsten Lauschmann, artist; Nic Green, artist and ecological activist; Alastair Macintosh, Centre for Human Ecology
    Contact: Robert Thurm at galleryhair @ hotmail.co.uk or buy tickets at TicketWeb
  • Feb 20th, 2012Bradford (National Media Museum)
    Address: Pictureville Bradford, West Yorkshire BD1 1NQ
    Contact: Gail Simon at gailsimon @ clara.co.uk or telephone 0870 701 0200
  • Feb 21st, 2012Bristol (Arnolfini Gallery, 7:30pm)
    Address: 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA
    Contact: Nick Hart-Williams (Schumacher Society) at nick @ schumacher.org.uk or buy tickets from the Schumacher Society
  • Feb 22nd, 2012Dartington (Dartington Schumacher College, 8pm – Screening and discussion)
    Address: The Old Postern, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EA
    Contact: Inga Page (Schumacher College) at Inga.Page @ schumachercollege.org.uk, telephone 01803 865 934 / 07813 802 508, or buy tickets from Schumacher College
  • Feb 23rd, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Screening and panel)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 24th, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Seminar / workshop with Nora Bateson)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 27th, 2012London (Premiere) (The Old Cinema)
    Invited panel speakers: Jody Boehnert (Ecological Literacy researcher, Brighton University / EcoLabs); Ranulph Glanville (Emeritus Professor, University College London / Independent academic / President of the American Society for Cybernetics); Peter Reason (Professor Emeritus, Centre for Action Research, Bath University / Ashridge Business School); Wendy Wheeler (Professor of English Literature & Cultural Inquiry, London Metropolitan Uni. / author of The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture / Consulting Editor for Cybernetics and Human Knowing)
    Panellist and Chair: Dr. Jon Goodbun (Sr. Lecturer, Architecture, Uni. of Westminster, RCA & UCL)
    Contact: Jon Goodbun IMCC (Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture) University of Westminster at jcgoodbun @ mac.com
    Co-organisers: Wallace Heim (home @ wallaceheim.com); Kevin Power – Centre for Action Research, Ashridge Business School (kevin.power @ btinternet.com); Eva Bakkeslett (bakkesle @ online.no)
    Buy tickets at Eventbrite
Trailer for An Ecology of Mind

4 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Jan 2012

Pots, kettles and colonialism

Two cheeks of the same arseDear God, but David Cameron is an idiot. Seriously… he’s a proper full-blown clown of a man. Even on the rare occasion that he’s actually right about something – and it really is very rare indeed – he seems determined to express his position in the worst possible terms so that I desperately want to disagree with him even if I don’t. He feels for all the more like a fake Tony Blair. As if someone had flown to Hong Kong and paid one of those back-street tailors to take a break from making knock-off Giorgio Armani suits and rustle up a Tony Blair instead. Truly they are two cheeks of the same arse.

Cameron’s most recent utterance of blithering idiocy is to describe Argentina’s designs on the Falklands as “like colonialism”. The rest of his statement, where he points out that “these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else”, is absolutely correct. I’m not suggesting that sovereignty of the Falkland Islands should be handed over to Buenos Aires. What I am saying is that for a British Prime Minister – particularly an aristotory – to accuse another nation of colonialism is just shoddy public relations. He may be right, technically speaking, but he also looks profoundly ridiculous in that rightness.

His choice of words draws attention away from the perfectly sensible point that the people of the islands have, for generations, asserted their Britishness. And away from the fact that they didn’t supplant an existing population of Argentinian citizens, but were in fact the first people to settle the islands. Instead he uses a word which reminds us all just how Britain got there in the first place… as part of a centuries-long policy of sailing around the world and stealing other people’s property at gunpoint. It was only through British colonialism that the Falklands are British today, and accusing the Argentinians of colonialism is akin to defending his position by wailing “yeah? but we did it first!”

Let me reiterate, I don’t believe the Argentinians have a valid claim to the Falkland Islands. I do think that this whole mess could be resolved though if Britain were to say… “Yes, the only reason we are there is because of a morally abhorrent policy that we engaged in for many years, and even though the Falklands is at the benign end of that policy we can see how it still looks bad in the eyes of others – particularly ex-colonies. Therefore as a gesture of goodwill, we will ring-fence any tax revenue raised from the Falklands – very small now, but who knows in the future – and place it into an unambiguously ethical overseas development programme (earthquake relief or something). The people there are British. And they want to remain British. But we will not reap any financial benefit from our possession of the islands – especially while we’re still spending a bunch of money helping the Americans invade places in what looks suspiciously like a continuation of that abhorrent policy that we’re accusing the Argentinians of adopting.”

I think that would be a perfect British response to Argentinian demands and may even – over time – slowly defuse the tension. But I doubt we’ll ever see such a response. Instead Cameron and his successors will continue to antagonise the government in Buenos Aires with accusations of colonialism and whatever other incendiary twaddle can be blurted out, until the day the British navy is so depleted as to make a defence of the islands untenable. At which point, a thoroughly pissed off Argentina will invade again.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

Against High Speed Rail

Over in the UK the government has just thrown their weight behind a High Speed Rail (HSR) project to connect London and Birmingham. The project is backed not only by the Tory government (including their sycophantic whipping-boys the Liberal Democrats) but also by the opposition Labour Party. Indeed, with the exception of a few rebellious members of the main parties (mostly from constituencies through which the new rail line will run, but who don’t get any obvious benefits because trains won’t actually stop there) along with parties on the fringe, this HSR project has universal political support.

High Speed Rail (HS2)This contrasts with the striking lack of support from people living in those aforementioned constituencies which will be negatively impacted (some in reality, some perhaps just in perception) by the scheme. Homes will be torn down, the countryside will be cut through (despite parts of the route going underground, there will still be plenty of trees felled and habitats destroyed – 160 important wildlife sites according to unnamed “wildlife groups” in the BBC report) and idyllic rural villages will find their peace and quiet periodically shattered by the thunderous whoosh of a high speed train passing through.

The government, as has become de rigeur with these kinds of project, held a “public consultation” on the matter. These public consultations are one of the most annoying developments in modern political theatre. Basically the government of the day makes a decision, asks the people affected by the decision to agree with it – in the hope of sharing the responsibility if something goes wrong – and then completely ignores the results of the consultation if it turns out that people don’t agree with the decision. It’s the sort of craven and cowardly strategy that shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how craven and cowardly our political classes have become, but still manages to frustrate and annoy because of the magnanimous manner in which these consultations are generally announced. “Why yes, we will let you little people have your say on this matter… just don’t expect us to actually listen.”

In the case of the London to Birmingham HSR project (known as ‘HS2’; ‘HS1’ being the Channel Tunnel link) almost 90% of the 55,000 responses to the public consultation objected to it. Whether you agree with the project or not, this surely demonstrates that the actual consultation was a waste of time and money carried out in the vain hope it would provide positive PR. It makes no sense whatsoever for there to be a legal requirement to hold a public consultation unless there is also a legal requirement to actually listen to the results.

Of course, just because a majority of people along the route of a rail line object to it, does not itself make the project A Bad Thing. The concerns of those directly affected by any infrastructure project must be factored into the decision making process. But they should not – necessarily – over-ride all other factors. Major projects like HS2 have an impact far beyond the route itself. They provide economic benefits that radiate out from the project for quite a distance. And they may offer environmental benefits should the trains reduce the use of more damaging transportation. So it may often be the case – as with wind farms, for instance – that the objections of local residents must unfortunately be over-ruled in the knowledge that the wider benefits to society outweigh those objections. The impact on local residents should be minimised as far as is practical, and compensation should be offered where necessary.

The Question

So the question becomes: Does HS2 provide sufficient benefits to outweigh the negative impact on those directly affected and upon the countryside through which the line will run? Over on twitter, John Band made his position pretty clear when he wrote: “I think HS2 has now officially joined bendy buses on my List Of Transport Things Where It’s Fair To Assume An Opponent Is A Dick.” Now, I like John. Even if he is calling me a dick.

Because, frankly, I think the HS2 project is a ridiculous and damaging waste of resources.

Don’t get me wrong, investing UK£33 billion (almost €40 billion) in rail infrastructure is a bloody marvellous idea [UPDATE: As John points out in the comments, the 33bn covers the entire HSR network rather than just the London-Birmingham line, though this doesn’t affect my basic position]. It’s exactly the kind of thing that governments should be doing right now (and it’s a crying shame that our government here in Ireland is pouring money into zombie banks; money that could be upgrading our public transport network… or building hospitals… or employing teachers… hell, spend the billions on beer and pies if you must, it would still be a better use of the cash than pouring it into Anglo-Irish Bank). But investing money in the rail network is not necessarily synonymous with spending a massive lump-sum on a vanity project.

And that’s what it is. A vanity project. Railways are a great idea. High Speed Rail is a terrible one. A recent US study (High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S.*) of the carbon emissions of various modes of transport suggests that travelling on HSR produces 20% more emissions than going by conventional rail, and almost double that of coaches. And that’s without factoring in the environmental costs of the actual infrastructure (which are high thanks to the large amounts of concrete and steel used).

And it’s not as if it’s providing a massive time saving either. HS2 won’t be teleportation. It’ll be more expensive than conventional rail and will reduce journey times by a shade over 40%. So the average saving between London and Birmingham will be roughly half an hour. Are the Tories really spending a fortune to cut up the countryside, screw up the lives of local residents and increase the cost of train travel, all to save a half hour? With WiFi available on UK intercity trains these days, it’s not like it even needs to be a half-hour “away from the office” for a lot of people.

Yes, from an emissions standpoint HSR beats cars and planes – by a considerable margin it should be said – but it’s really not in competition with them. Most people who make the journey by car are unlikely to switch to train without a major incentive. That incentive is on the way, of course, in the form of peak oil. But because HSR carries far less passengers than conventional rail, it makes much more sense to absorb any large switch from car to train using conventional rail [UPDATE: In the comments John points out that this is not the case… which invalidates one of my objections to HSR, though I still think that conventional rail – albeit on an upgraded system with a few billion invested in it – is far better than HSR in the face of Climate Change and resource depletion. So I still say that British rail investment should be going into upgrading the current rail network… increase platform lengths, buy some extra carriages and develop a new signalling system].

In fact, it makes even more sense to absorb the migration from private car into a new, integrated coach network. You want to travel from London to Birmingham? Simple. Build a large new coach station in Brent Cross, North London (i.e. within sight of the M1 on-ramp). Link it directly to the tube either via the Northern Line or the Jubilee Line (it would require a new branch of no more than a few hundred metres in either case). Then dedicate an entire lane of the M1 to express-coach traffic only. This will reduce journey times for coaches while providing an additional incentive for drivers to ditch their cars.

Yes, yes, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the motoring lobby will hate the idea… but frankly they will become increasingly irrelevant as oil price rises start to make private car use a luxury – long before HS2 is due to start running in 2026. Motorways will be half-empty by that stage anyway. No, an integrated coach network may not as sexy as HSR, but it makes a damn sight more sense environmentally, is a fraction of the cost to set up, makes use of existing infrastructure that will soon be significantly under-employed and will cost far less for the end user.

So… by objecting to HS2 I’m objecting to a massive infrastructure project that will damage the environment, will cost a lot more than it needs to, will be a dreadfully inefficient use of resources, will inconvenience more people than is necessary and will be more expensive to the end-user than the alternatives. If that makes me “a dick”, then so be it. Better that than flush money down the toilet and screw up the planet because I like shiny things that go fast. Which I do, but I’m not so idiotic as to want to base public policy on that fact.

* Although the study is titled High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S., they actually looked at a variety of projects around the world and based their calculations on the emissions produced by the Danish IC-3 system, which they felt were representative of HSR as a whole.

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Dec 2011

The Final Countdown?

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the negotiations, tantrums, pratfalls and other shenanigans that go to make up European politics of late. My mind has been well and truly boggled by the cavalier fashion in which politicians from across the political spectrum (though mostly on the centre-right, for it is they who hold the balance of power in Europe these days) have relegated the interests of the people below the interests of financial institutions and other corporations.

Fractured EU FlagOf course, it has become part of the standard rhetoric of the left (and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone) to suggest that our political establishment has effectively ceased representing those who elected them and now focus exclusively upon representing the rich and powerful. It’s a line that’s gotten old through constant use. But rarely has this claim been so self-evidently true as during the past few months.

Now, there are those who would argue that there’s no reason why the interests of financial institutions and other corporations should necessarily conflict with those of the population at large. And I’m more than willing to concede that. There are all manner of hypothetical scenarios (and even a few historical ones) in which the interests of the rich and powerful complement the interests of the rest of us. However it is only the irredeemably partisan or the unfortunately half-witted who would claim our current situation qualifies as such a scenario.

We have allowed ourselves to be manoeuvred into a position where the very people we elect to represent our interests are gleefully handing our collective wealth over to the already super-rich. Where hospitals and schools are being closed in order to funnel public money into banks. Where croneyism and outright corruption have become the basic modus operandus of government. And where those who are already poverty-stricken – or in danger of becoming so – are expected to tighten their belts so that the wealthy may accumulate ever more obscene fortunes.

Both politics and finance are supposed to serve the wider population. We elect politicians to represent our interests directly. The financial institutions that make up modern Market Capitalism are, theoretically at least, permitted to exist by society in order to make the distribution of wealth an efficient process. Certainly there is nothing written into the rules of the Free Market system that says the wealth much be distributed equitably, but there should be a basic fairness to the system… one that, at the very least, allows the vast majority of people to live comfortably. If the Market does not achieve this aim then it is failing society as a whole and needs to be replaced with something else. After all, it’s supposed to be The People who ultimately call the shots and decide how society is structured. Not a handful of bond traders, political insiders and bankers.

Right now, however, we have arrived at a situation where politics and finance have united against the wider population. For several decades they have been united in self-interest and marginal cranks such as myself have been decrying this and warning against the inevitable tragedy that would result. However, at the same time, this unholy cabal was careful to provide a half-decent standard of living for the wider population (yes, yes, largely at the expense of the billions of poor in the so-called “developing” world, but I’m talking specifically about the people, governments and institutions of Europe). This staved off revolution and also effectively muted much of the criticism from the marginal cranks in the anti-capitalist brigade. It’s difficult to convince someone that they’re being screwed-over by the wealthy elite when they are flush with endorphins from their purchase of a 42-inch HD LED-backlit flat screen TV. We’re all monkeys after all, and easily distracted by shiny toys (me as much as anyone… a recent gift of an iPad2 has left me cooing and swiping the touch-screen like any other monkey – and I don’t even like Apple!)

But the past couple of years have seen the beginnings of a shift… we are leaving the world of Huxley and rejoining that of Orwell. No longer are the financial and political elites willing to share even the crumbs of the great wealth they are accumulating. They have become so self-assured in their positions of power that their rapacious appetites extend now even to those crumbs. Public services are slashed to the bone, yet increased taxation on the rich cannot even be considered. In nations without jobs, welfare benefits are cut and then grudgingly distributed, yet corporate tax rates are sacrosanct. The few remaining assets of a demoralised populace are flogged to ultra-rich investors at rock-bottom prices in order to pay off debts run up by those self-same ultra-rich investors.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister)Last Friday this wealth-grab by the powerful played out in an odd fashion in the theatre of European politics when David Cameron (the right-wing British Prime Minister) threw a strop and stormed out of negotiations supposedly designed to solve the European debt crisis and save the euro. Well, he “used his veto”, which amounts to the same thing in Brussels. His stated reason for this break with the rest of Europe was his desire to protect the City of London… in other words, the UK’s financial sector.

There was much that was odd about this whole process. Firstly, Cameron’s veto doesn’t really protect the City of London… I could write a whole post on why this is the case (and may yet do), but in reality he may actually have exposed The City to significant harm should the other 26 EU members draw up a treaty that covers financial services. It’s also worth pointing out that while about 10% of Britain’s GDP is generated by the financial sector, a whopping 40% is generated by exports to the EU… his veto doesn’t affect Britain’s position in the Common Market, but it may well foreshadow a serious strain in the relationship between the UK and Europe; a strain that places the 40% at risk despite doing little to protect the 10%. He was effectively attempting to place the interests of his City Chums ahead of the interests of the general populace and may simply have succeeded in shafting both.

Also, by playing to the rabid euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party, he has driven a massive wedge down the middle of his coalition government which may or may not turn out to be a political disaster. Incidentally, every time I see that over-fed jubilant Tory MP call Cameron’s strategy a triumph for Britain’s “bulldog spirit” I can’t help but think, “yeah, you waddle around shitting where it’s inappropriate, only pausing briefly to lick your own balls… truly an appropriate image for the modern Tory”.

Increasing the oddness of the Cameron sulk, though, is the fact that the draft treaty on which he has turned his back is a right-wing financial-political-elite wet dream. What’s being proposed by the Franco-German alliance and eagerly lapped up by the rest of the nations involved is a terrible betrayal of the people of Europe. It runs the risk of legally restricting future national governments from adopting left-wing economic policies. It runs the risk of setting back the power of labour unions by a hundred years. It runs the risk of permanently transferring sovereignty from national populaces towards international financial institutions. And all the while it – bizarrely – completely fails to address the current European debt crisis or do anything to stabilise the euro.

Last week’s summit can be summarised as an attempt by the European elite to use the current crisis as cover for imposing a permanent state of austerity on the wider public without even trying to solve that crisis. It’s the kind of thing that Cameron should have eagerly embraced, but was too beholden to his own marginal cranks to do so. And by being the only nation outside the proposed treaty, Britain may end up being damaged as a whole, despite the treaty being a betrayal. It’s all very odd.

What Europe needs right now is a couple of socialist revolutions followed by mass nationalisations. I can only hope that the Irish government, for one, is quietly printing new banknotes and making plans – however provisional – to exit the common currency. I have my doubts they’re smart enough for that, but we may well find out in the coming months.

Cameron photo courtesy of TopNews

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Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

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May 2011

On This Deity: 12th May 1916

I have a new piece up at On This Deity today.

12th May 1916: The Execution of James Connolly.

It was a bright morning in Dublin on May 12th 1916, and a great crowd had gathered outside of Kilmainham Jail. As spring was turning to summer, a city still coming to terms with the death and destruction of the Easter Rising was being forced to accept yet more blood-letting. People near the jail on recent days had heard the terrible sound of a volley of gunfire as the firing squads ended life after life, and then watched as the black flag was raised above the building. Executions without trial, these state-sanctioned murders represented the British government’s response to the most recent attempt by Irish socialists and nationalists to break free from the shackles of Empire. With between one and three shootings per day, Dublin’s mornings were scheduled to be punctuated by gunfire for the next two months. As blunt a demonstration of the iron fist of oppression as could be imagined.

But the size of the crowd on May 12th, and the anger and outrage it displayed, was to force a rethink of British policy. Because it was on that morning that James Connolly was gunned down, tied to a chair, in the courtyard of the prison.

read the rest…

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May 2011

To AV or AV not?

I’d intended writing something about the Osama bin Laden assassination, but figured I’d wait until the US government get their story straight. The lovely Citizen S seems to think that these daily revisions of what happened are all about sowing confusion and deliberately creating a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I don’t see what Obama’s administration gains from that strategy, but I must admit that I can’t come up with a better explanation for their inability to stick to a single version for more than a few hours.

So I’ve decided to hold off on that issue until things get a bit clearer (which may never happen of course). Instead let me take a few moments to urge my UK readers to consider voting “Yes” in the referendum on the Alternative Voting (AV) system. Those of you who were paying attention in the run up to the last UK general election will recall that I advised voting for the Liberal Democrats on the single issue of electoral reform. Given how disastrous they’ve been in government, I can only apologise for that. In fact, they’ve been so disastrous that I’ve heard people seriously argue for a “No” vote on the grounds that it would punish Nick Clegg. While I completely understand the level of betrayal that many feel (remember, I voted Green in the 2007 Irish election!) “punishing Nick Clegg” is an absurd rationale for rejecting electoral reform.

Don’t get me wrong, if after careful consideration you decide that First Past The Post (FPTP) is a fairer and more democratic system than AV, then by all means vote “No” in the referendum. Frankly I consider that a mystifying position to take (you can pretty much prove on an etch-a-sketch that while AV is far from a perfect voting system, it’s definitely better than FPTP if fairness and democracy are your chief concerns) but we’re all entitled to our opinion, however ridiculous.

Thus far I’ve heard the following arguments in favour of a “No” vote…

Punish the Lib Dems

Yes, the Liberal Democrats have betrayed those who elected them. The notion that they were anything other than a bunch of free market capitalists was always deluded. That they embraced conservative economic policies and propped up a right wing government shouldn’t surprise anyone who cast an informed vote in their direction last year. So if you voted for them because you thought they were “of the left” (as many people apparently did) then you’ve not been betrayed. You were simply ill-informed. However, that the Lib Dems have so cravenly backtracked on unambiguous promises, without putting up a fight or making any sustained public objection, is a clear betrayal. And they deserve to be hung out to dry as a result.

Nonetheless, it would be utterly insane to “punish” the Liberal Democrats for breaking promises by turning your back on the one promise they kept. They secured a (desperately watered-down) referendum on electoral reform. It’s the single good thing to have emerged from this coalition of the craven. Be a shame to waste it really. After all, if you want to punish Clegg because he’s accepted a role as Cameron’s lackey, then it implies it’s Cameron you have the bigger problem with. Right? So why not punish him instead? He wants you to vote “No”.

Besides, this referendum – the first direct say you’ve had in national policy since 1974 – isn’t about Nick Clegg, or about any single political party. It’s about the political system itself. It’s about making it fairer and more representative. Allowing personality or party politics to influence your decision on this is surely defeating the whole point of a referendum. This is a free vote. No party whips. It transcends the petty grievances of today and its effects will be felt long after Nick Clegg has been consigned to an historical footnote in a dull book.

FPTP is better at producing strong, stable government

Well, let’s break that down shall we? It was the current, FPTP system that gave Britain this rather unsavoury coalition of arseholes. If you look at Cameron, Osbourne and Clegg and the words “strong and stable” are the first to come to mind then may I suggest you get yourself a more expansive vocabulary. But that’s not really the point. See, while I dispute the fact that FPTP tends to produce strength and stability, let’s assume for a moment it’s true. It begs the two word question… so what?

See, there’s no doubt that having a strong and stable government is a bonus. But it’s very much a secondary concern for those who want their democratic elections to be… well… democratic. Isn’t it obvious that the first concern should be electing a government that’s actually vaguely representative of what the people voted for? If “strength and stability” are your primary concerns, then fascist dictatorship wins that particular race every time. Seriously, if you see the production of strength and stability as being the function of an election, then why not check out Saddam Hussein’s version of democracy. It’s the same one they use in North Korea. Every few years the population shows up at the polling booth and votes for the one name on the ballot paper. Pretty much guarantees you won’t end up with a coalition.

So if you like the idea of narrowing choice and reducing representation, then it makes sense to follow the advice of the BNP and vote “No” tomorrow. Strength and stability before proportionality. It’s a fine, if slightly unwieldy slogan I guess.

AV is too complex

Perhaps the most bizarre claim of all. The “No” campaign is apparently insisting that British people are too thick to list things in order of preference. Now, I lived in the UK for a fairly long time and while I met my share of thick people there, I wouldn’t say it was more than I met anywhere else. No doubt there are people in Britain who, when asked to list their top five albums of all time, don’t agonise over whether The White Album is better than Astral Weeks but instead agonise over what the word “list” means. But there can’t be that many of them surely. Certainly not enough to warrant making them the central demographic for a national political campaign.

Here in Ireland we’ve got a semi-proportional Single Transferable Vote system with multi-member constituencies. That’s waaay more complicated than AV. But except for the people who stare at their ballot paper wondering what number comes after “1”, we all pretty much grasp it. So when someone tells you that AV is too complicated for you, they are lying to you and they are insulting you. Which means it’s unlikely they have your best interests at heart.

AV is more expensive

Nope. It’s really not. Leastways, it doesn’t need to be. Yes, the referendum itself is going to cost money, but that money’s being spent whatever way it turns out. It’s not like the treasury gets a refund if the nation votes “No”. And the notion that voting by AV will require expensive voting machines, or expensive counting machines, is complete nonsense. Sure, you can invest in those things if you want, but they’re not a prerequisite for an election under the AV system. Here in Ireland, with our even more complicated system, we manage perfectly well voting with a pencil and counting by hand. Sure, we still elect terrible governments, but sadly no voting system can stop that happening. That’s down to the quality of the candidates and the willingness of the electorate to believe any old bullshit.

Bullshit like how expensive, complex and unstable AV is.

It’s not Full Proportional Representation

No, it’s not. AV should produce a more proportional result than FPTP because it will reduce tactical voting and increase the number of “swing seats”. But it’s far from fully proportional. It won’t eliminate tactical voting completely, and there’ll still be safe seats and swing seats. But rejecting a better system because it’s not the best system doesn’t make much sense. Especially since there’s no evidence that sticking with FPTP will increase the likelihood of full PR. In reality the opposite is probably true. Rejecting AV will allow those in favour of FPTP to insist that the British people don’t want change. And some of those in favour of electoral reform will decide it’s a vote loser.

A vote for AV will strengthen the position of those who claim that Britain wants a fairer system. A vote against AV will weaken that position.

Ultimately though, it’s in your hands Britain. You have it in your power to make your democracy marginally more representative. Alternatively, you can voice your support for ‘politics as usual’. How’s that working out for you?

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